More Coaching Onion

Yesterday I blogged about 4 paths to teacher coaching that doesn't accomplish much. I focused on "Failure 3" which I think is common in "No Excuses" type charter schools, including ours.

Do traditional schools face more of

Failure 1 (Lack of Trust/Lack of Openness to feedback)


Failure 2 (Questionable Technical Fixes)?

I don't know. My guess is yes.

The Washington Post recently ran an excellent article* written by Stephanie McCrummen. The headline was "D.C. teacher evaluation becomes a delicate conversation."

(Quick semantic point. What the article describes is evaluation mixed with coaching. At the bottom of my blog today, I offer a thought about that).

A cautionary note before I dive in. The article includes excerpts. Who the heck knows what the full transcript looks like.

1. The Feedback

Bethel dissected Harris’s teaching as a doctor might be scrutinized for technical skill. Bethel’s most serious concern involved how Harris had taught his lesson on the commutative property, the math law that says 3 + 5 is the same as 5 + 3.

Bethel described what he had observed: Harris had written on the whiteboard: 855 + 319 = 1,174. Underneath, he had written four problems, such as 855+300+19+1 and 800+50+5+150+150+19.

Students were supposed to work the four problems and discover the underlying math law. But had the students done that, Bethel said, they would have discovered a different concept.

“So basically you showed them decomposition,” Bethel said. “That was the discovery, not so much that order doesn’t matter,” which was the objective.

For the sake of argument, let's guess that Bethel was correct. The lesson was problematic in this regard.

2. Teacher Response

Harris sat up. He raised his eyebrows, and in slightly exasperated tones, began offering his critique of the critique.

The problems on the board, Harris said, were just a warm-up to review the concept of place value. But it soon became clear that the students were struggling simply to add. And in that moment, Harris said, he decided to scrap the objective and rehash place value.

“It seems like I’m getting penalized possibly because I didn’t do that exact lesson I set out to do,” Harris said, explaining that many of his students were three grade levels behind. “I’m trying to get the kids up to a speed where they could learn that lesson. A lot of our kids, they fundamentally don’t know.”

He apologized for being politically incorrect. Then he continued. He said that all children do not learn equally and that “our children, especially, don’t learn equally.”

Yesterday I described this as Failure 1.

Classic low trust. Doesn't trust the evaluator. Doesn't trust the system which hired the evaluator.

3. The Parry

Bethel nodded. “I hear what you’re saying,” he said.

But the truth was he did not agree. From what Bethel had observed, the kids were simply confused, not unable to add. Though it was not easy, Bethel said, it was possible to teach the objective while working on students’ weaknesses.

Again, I wasn't there. But from the example, Bethel is right. At least short-term, is possible to teach a mathematical idea -- like commutative property -- without fixing kids basic skills deficits.

However, if Bethel doesn't have a plausible yearlong strategy for Harris to tackle these basic skill issues, I'd fault him, as the district's representative, as well.

4. Bethel Gives A Suggestion

Delicately, smiling, he offered a suggestion. Harris might have divided the students into three groups, giving each one the same simple addition problem, but with the order of the numbers rearranged. Each group would solve their problem. Then they would share their answers.

“Then you give the students a chance to say, ‘Hey, we all have same answer!’” Bethel said, lighting up. “Then you let them discover that the numbers were arranged in different ways. Then you’re getting at the key concept—that order doesn’t matter.”

It was an elegant solution, Harris acknowledged.

Is this Failure 2? I'm not sure I agree this is sound technical advice. Smaller groups can work. Skilled teachers use this technique well.

But if Harris doesn't usually divide kids into groups, Bethel just handed him a ton of new challenges to solve. It's quite possible that a different observer would visit Harris, see kids divided in small groups who are mostly screwing around, and say "STOP breaking your kids into groups, they're mostly talking about the prom, not about math."

Furthermore, Bethel has strayed from his critique. The initial problem was Harris had an aim, then didn't have kids work on problems that would allow them to learn that aim. Seems like a straightforward fix could have worked. Use problems that advance the aim.

Failure 1 (Trust) possibly creeps in, too. Harris doesn't want to be seen as a pain in the ass. He doesn't trust the evaluator. But he can't just say "you're wrong" to everything. He'll end up without a job. Who knows, maybe Harris thinks the group work is a terrible idea. Maybe he tried it last year and it failed. So an honest exchange is difficult.

5. Dopamine Flood

They moved on to the last of the nine standards, engaging students in rigorous work. Harris read his score. “It says ineffective,” he said, incredulous.

Bethel explained that the warm-up problems, while rigorous, were aimed at the wrong objective. They went over it again. Harris sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Bethel said. “I hate that this is discouraging. I really do. You’ve had good ideas, really.”

Harris interrupted. “What I’m trying to convey to you, Mr. — ” he paused — “Eric — is that most lesson plans, the best ones, no matter how pinpoint precise I plan it, the lesson will deviate. It will deviate because there is always some other rock I have to overturn to look at.”

6. The Finale

Bethel gave him the final score, which was low. If the trend continued, Harris realized, he could lose his job.

“It’s just — I don’t feel that I’m putting in ‘minimally effective’ effort at all,” he said.

For Bethel, this was most excruciating part of the job. He began shutting off his computer. “This does not measure your effort,” he said, packing his bag. “But I do see your effort, Mr. Harris.”

“So — what is this measuring?” Harris asked.

“It’s measuring the effectiveness of that effort,” Bethel said. “This is not a reflection of your passion for education, your love for students. Not at all.”

Which for Harris was precisely the problem and for Bethel was part of a difficult, painful solution.

As he left, Bethel offered to help Harris with lesson planning, a gesture that would not count on Bethel’s own evaluation. Harris leaned back in the little chair. He pursed his lips.

“I don’t think you’re being personally unfair, it’s just — ” he paused. “I’m going to look over it again. I know where I could improve. So. Yeah. It was nice talking to you.”

Here's what I'm thinking:

a. What if DC Public Schools separated the evaluators and the coaches?

I.e., an evaluator explains the feedback, but doesn't try to fix it. The coach would be a different person altogether. Even though Harris disputes the evaluation, he wouldn't be trying to debate the coach, because he knows the coach didn't give the evaluation. Their goal simplifies to: actually improve (at least in the eyes of the evaluator).

b. In addition to separating the function, I'd introduce teacher choice.

If your job is on the line, wouldn't you want to pick your own coach? Allow teachers to meet and talk to several coaches. It could almost work like speed-dating.

c. How might it work?

Here's a format I'd imagine.

Harris gets an afternoon and 4 hours to meet with 4 coaches. Speed dating, but without the speed.

Each prospective coach sits down with Harris:

*First, reads Harris's evaluation. *Second, watches 10 minutes of Harris teaching -- on video. *Third, talk with Harris for 45 minutes -- the coach says "Here is what I'd work on with you"; Harris responds; etc.

I don't think this would be an unreasonable ask by teachers, to at least give them the option of shopping for the coach. My example would take 4 "coach-hours" per teacher. If evaluators earn $60/hour, that's $240 per teacher. Seems affordable.

d. Could value-added assessment help Harris here?

I.e., if his kids learn a lot relative to other DC kids, can't he just wave a copy of their academic gains at Bethel and essentially have a strong evaluation "locked in?"

e. My compliments both to Bethel and Harris for agreeing to allow the reporter in.

*Excellent article, but one quibble. Reporter writes:

The idea, aggressively embraced by the Obama administration, is as straightforward as it is controversial: that teachers are the main factor in student growth — more than poverty, parents, curriculum, principals or other circumstance.

I don't know that this precisely describes the Obama admin theory. It's that teachers are the main "within school" factor in student growth -- more than curriculum or principals. Specifically, the view is that teachers get very different results with the same kids. I.e., Teacher A with poor kids may do much better or much worse than Teacher B with the exact same kids.